CHICOPEE — At least five years ago Tony Diaz drove by the Exchange Street plaza and thought it would be a good spot for a grocery store.
He was so interested that called the owner and asked him to call if the spot ever came up for lease and then he waited for about four years when that call came through. Diaz, who already owns Key Food Marketplace in Holyoke, jumped on it.
Despite a complicated renovation Diaz couldn’t be happier to now have opened his second Key Food this month.
And he isn’t alone, Olga Ortiz who was shopping with her granddaughter Alexa Mejia, 5, on a weekday is delighted the store is now open.
The store is so close to her apartment that Ortiz can walk. She said she has been watching and waiting for some time while the “opening soon” sign hung outside and renovations were going on inside.
“They have everything I want. We don’t have to drive around to different places anymore,” she said while checking out the produce.
The staff is polite and friendly, the store is clean and it has the Spanish food in the brands that Ortiz said she prefers.
The grocery store came about when one of the businesses occupying one store closed and the landlord decided to see if the owner of the adjacent store would consider moving to another property so he could knock down some walls and create a space large enough for a supermarket. When the owner agreed, Diaz signed a lease and stated renovations.
“We ran into a lot of surprises, not good surprises. It was a lot of work,” he said.
First, they had to abate asbestos and bring it up to fire codes. Then they found there wasn’t enough electrical power for the refrigeration and other equipment they needed they had to upgrade the gas and electrical system, he said.
The work was finally finished this summer and at the end of July Diaz opened with the help of his manager, Emmanual Rosado, and about 30 staff members.
The neighborhood attracted him because he likes the urban environment with a lot of people living close by and he realized most of the large chain supermarkets are located across the city on Memorial Drive. The one exception is the independently owned Fruit Fair on Front Street.
He said he also sees potential to grow his customer base if the Cabotville Mill is developed. The now-vacant mill was sold last week at auction after being closed about 18 months ago for code violations.
The Diaz family and many of their staff members are either Puerto Rican or Dominican so they specialize in foods from their own culture. They also have a hot bar with prepared foods, including a lot of ethnic ones that are popular such as beef stew, rotisserie chicken, different soups and rice and beans, he said.
The store also does catering, offering a lot of the same foods that appear in their hot bar, he said.
“We try to offer one-stop shopping. People can get money orders, they can pay utility bills, we have lottery and we accept all debit and credit cards, SNAP and WIC,” he said.
The store also includes a butcher shop so they can take personalized orders for people who want a specific cut of meat, Rosado said.
For customers who buy at least $70 in groceries, there is a free shuttle that will bring them home. That allows people in the neighborhood to walk to the store and not have to worry about having to haul heavy bags back home, he said.
Diaz said he has learned plenty of lessons from running one store already but a lot of it is simple. Keep the store clean and listen to the customers.
“You have to be attentive to the customer needs. I want people to tell me: How can we improve? What can we do better? What are we missing?” Diaz said.
One shopper asked him about stocking a particular type of cookies found in Puerto Rico so the store is adding those. While Latin ethnic foods are popular, Diaz said he is getting customer requests for Portuguese and Polish foods so he is beginning to carry some of those as well.
He has hired about 30 people, all from the area, and has transferred a handful of people from the Holyoke store just so he has a mix of experienced employees to help train new workers.
But the stores are mainly a family business with Diaz’s wife, his children and other relatives working for him.
His son Anthony Diaz Jr., who just graduated from the University of Connecticut with a master’s degree in public administration, is currently working part-time at the store while he tries to jump start a career in his major. But he said he isn’t ruling out working for the family business in the future.
“When I saw the new store I thought it was great. Everything is clean and new and modern,” he said.
Kathleen Slattery, who took the short drive from Indian Orchard with her daughter to check it out, said she would be back.
She praised the produce and said, “the people are really nice,” she said. “I wish them a lot of success.”